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A Boy and His Dog

A Boy and His Dog(1974)

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A Boy and his Dog (1975), the directorial debut of longtime character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones, is not the first post-apocalyptic vision of America but it does offer a different approach to the empty streets and ghostly cities that previously stood in for the life after the end. Where films like Five (1951) and The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959) gave us future where the cities and streets and detritus of urban life remains like a ghost to haunt the sole survivors, A Boy and his Dog offers a savage world where the past is rubble, nature has been blasted to a desolate desert, and the survivors are mercenary gangs and parasites picking through the pockets of ruins and preying upon the weak.

Jones establishes the sheer barbarity of the marauder culture with roving gangs dressed in mismatched (and often flamboyant) clothes travelling the wasteland like rogue platoons or feudal lords (one scruffy leader is pulled on a coach as if he were an Egyptian king). George Miller surely took a cue from Jones for The Road Warrior. There's no future in sight, no new community trying to rebuild or even farm, and no women, at least not out in the open. This is not just a man's world, it is male brutality and misogyny at its worst, and women are treated like salvage to be used and discarded.

Vic (Don Johnson), a dim, feral kid running on attitude and impulse, survives this world because he's teamed up with Blood, an erudite telepathic dog (the voice of Tim McIntire out of a mutt that looks like Benji on the skids) bred for war. Johnson was in his mid-twenties at the time but looks younger and he plays Vic as an uncivilized creature of pure testosterone and adolescent impulse, an idiot child who has survival skills without the smarts or the instinct. He'd likely be dead without the cynical, sarcastic Blood, whose job is to sniff out females for Vic but is also the brains of the partnership. The wisecracking from Blood at times borders on arrogant and disdainful, which is what makes the relationship so vivid. They are a true bickering couple who, like it or not, need each other.

If the surface is a savage arena, the so-called civilization underneath is a tyrannical dictatorship under the front of a malignant fantasy. The underground recreation of "the good old days" is an impotent culture frozen in false values and enforced with blithe finality by soft-speaking despots in clown-white make-up, like the court of Louis the XIV recreated in the guise of turn-of-the-20th-Century small town Americana. Quilla June (Susanne Benton), however, is mix of modern young woman and would-be farm girl. Vic thinks he's the one doing the stalking when he spots her on the surface and chases her like a dog in heat (and Vic is nothing if not perpetually horny), but nothing in his survivalist handbook has prepared him for her, and she knows it. She plays into Vic's fantasy of the unprotected innocent turned compliant sexual partner, and against the better judgment of Blood, Vic follows her into the underground.

It's been almost forty years since A Boy and his Dog debuted and it is still the most faithful screen adaptation of Harlan Ellison's work. It's expanded and a few details are changed for more effective visual storytelling, but it creatively preserves the tone and attitude of the original, which is all the more remarkable in that Ellison did not script the film, though he was contracted to. Gripped in a stasis of writer's block and creative exhaustion, Ellison bowed out and Jones penned the screen adaptation himself.

As in the best low budget efforts, less is more in the visualization of a war-decimated world populated by wandering scavengers. Jones is better with the world above ground than the cartoonish satire below, which looks like a Kansas small town built in giant warehouse painted black from floor to ceiling. Most of that is surely budgetary constraints but he makes it work and even tops Ellison as he reimagines the reseeding of the population as a sham marriage and an antiseptic medical procedure. The barbarian seed may be necessary, but that doesn't mean they will let their flowers of womanhood get trampled by their donors.

Vic is no hero but he's far less predatory than these evil clowns (led by Jason Robards, who we realize picked out Vic right from the start) in their artificial world. That puts us on Vic's side right from the start, which is pure Ellison, as is the relationship between man and canine at the heart of the film. The famously caustic and critical Ellison has always praised Jones' adaptation, but criticized the black-humored joke that Blood cracks in the film's final scene. Yet even if you object to the line, Jones makes that final scene sad, horrific, unsettling, and touching, all with an understatement that lets the audience slowly come to terms with an uncompromising act of love and devotion.

The independently-made A Boy and his Dog was not a financial success right away, but it was well reviewed and embraced by science fiction fans and it became regularly revived and even re-released in different territories over the years. Its treatment in home video, however, has not been very good. Previous DVD releases were poorly mastered with an indifferent image. Shout Factory's Blu-ray+DVD Combo features a newly-restored high-definition transfer. It's good-looking disc of film that made a virtue of the down and dirty look of a windblown desert apocalypse. There are minor scuffs and scratches but is a great improvement in detail and sharpness over previous DVD releases.

New to the release is a new video conversation with director L.Q. Jones and author Harlan Ellison, a fascinating meeting of creators who bounce between respectful admiration and competitive challenge, with Ellison keeping it firmly R-rated with comments laced with liberal (and often creative) swearing. It is clear they like and respect one another as they showboat through the conversation as tag-team raconteurs, with Ellison taking top honors with entertaining exaggeration (and bonus points for quoting Galaxy Quest).

The disc also features the commentary by director L.Q. Jones with cinematographer John Morrill and film critic Charles Champlain that was recorded decades ago for its initial laserdisc release, and it offers a thoroughly frank and eye-opening discussion of filmmaking on a budget, the evolution of a novella to a film, and an actor's insight to casting and direction actors, plus the original trailer and radio spots.

By Sean Axmaker